‘He seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour,’ Bob Dylan recalled of the moment he first heard the voice of the most exotic and mysterious bluesman of them all. In his lifetime, Robert Johnson released just eleven 78rpm records. They were enough to make him the most influential of all the Delta musicians within the blues community. Then, in the 1960s, the reissue of his recordings meant the rest of the world got to hear him, and his impact on a new generation brought up in the rock ‘n’ roll era was even more dramatic.
Dylan was among the first of his generation to hear Johnson, after he was given an acetate of the soon-to-be-released compilation album King Of The Delta Singers by Columbia staff producer John Hammond in 1961. His reaction to what he heard was fairly typical of the impact Johnson had on almost everybody at the time, yet no one has articulated those feelings more eloquently than Dylan when he recalled the moment of epiphany: ‘I immediately differentiated him from everyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren't customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces,’ he wrote in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles Volume One. ‘They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story – fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic. It felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition.’
Although he was for long a shadowy and mysterious figure, no Delta bluesman has had his life and background researched more thoroughly than Robert Johnson, and we can now thread together a reasonably comprehensive picture of his life. Johnson's grandparents were slaves, and his mother, Julia Ann Majors, married Charles Dodds in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in February 1889. Dodds left Mississippi around 1907 and moved to Memphis, where he assumed the name of Spencer. In her husband's absence, Julia Dodds took up with Noah Johnson and gave birth to Robert Johnson on or around 8 May 1911, in Hazlehurst. Their liaison did not last, and in 1914 mother and son moved to Memphis and were reunited with Charles.
However, by this time, her husband had another 'wife' and family, and Julia moved on, leaving Robert behind. He stayed with the Spencers until around 1918, when the couple decided they could no longer cope with his increasingly wilful behaviour and he was packed off back to his mother, who by now was living in Robinsonville, a small cotton town twenty miles south of Memphis. He lived with his mother and new stepfather, Willie ‘Dusty’ Willis, until adulthood, and was sometimes known as Little Robert Dusty.
By the mid-1920s, by which time the Willis family was living on the Abbay & Leatherman plantation in nearby Commerce, Mississippi, the teenage Robert Spencer, as he preferred to be known, had begun playing first the Jew’s harp and then the harmonica. By the late 1920s, he had graduated to the guitar, which he played with the harmonica, fixed around his neck on a rack made with baling wire. He had also started listening in earnest to early 'race records', with Leroy Carr's 1928 recording ‘How Long, How Long Blues’ said to be a particular favourite.
Local musician Willie Brown gave him tuition and he derived further inspiration from visiting bluesmen such as Charley Patton. He also learned from other local musicians Myles Robson and Ernest ‘Whiskey Red’ Brown, while reluctantly making his living sharecropping. In early 1929, when he was still only 17, he married 15-year-old Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi, and the couple went to live with Robert's older half-sister Bessie and her husband on the Kline plantation east of Robinsonville. She died in childbirth the following year.
During the summer of 1930, Son House came to live in Robinsonville and Johnson became a disciple of his intense Delta blues style, following him around the juke joints. Tired of sharecropping, in late 1930 he hoboed his way 200 miles south to Hazlehurst, in search of his real father. It's unclear whether he found him, but he discovered a new mentor in bluesman Ike Zinnerman, who was playing for local construction gangs and in the lumber camps. He also took a new wife, Calletta ‘Callie’ Craft, more than ten years his senior and with three children from previous marriages. Some of the mythology that later attached itself to Johnson seems to have come from Zinnerman, who claimed he had learned to play guitar in a graveyard at midnight while sitting on a tombstone. Johnson began keeping a little book, in which he wrote the songs he learned from Zinnerman. The two played together at local juke joints and country suppers and dances on weekends, but as Johnson's confidence and ability grew he increasingly took the path of the solo bluesman, known locally as R.L., which he claimed stood for ‘Robert Lonnie’ (after Lonnie Johnson, whom he much admired), although it also stood for ‘Robert Leroy’, the names his mother had given him at birth.
In the mid-1930s Johnson and his wife moved to Clarksdale, although he soon deserted her. By the time he made a brief return to Robinsonville to see his mother, it was obvious to his old colleagues Son House and Willie Brown that he had become a superlative bluesman, and House may have inadvertently started the diabolic rumours about him by joking that he must have signed a pact with the devil. Next he relocated to Helena, Arkansas, where he met and played with such bluesmen as Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Shines. He also moved in with another woman, Estella Coleman, and taught her son Robert Lockwood Jr to play the blues. Not that he was around Helena too much, as he travelled far and wide across the Delta, chasing other women and playing juke joints with a repertoire that included not only blues but anything his audiences requested, from pop songs and sentimental ballads to hillbilly dances and polkas. He even, apparently, did a decent version of ‘Yes, Sir, That's My Baby’.
During his travels around the Delta in 1936, he approached H.C. Speir, who ran a music store in Jackson, Mississippi, and acted as a talent scout for several blues labels. Speir auditioned Johnson and passed on his details to ARC's Ernie Oertle, who took Johnson to San Antonio, Texas, to record his first sessions in November 1936. They produced ‘Terraplane Blues’, which was to remain Johnson's bestselling release in his lifetime. He recorded again in June 1937 in Dallas, Texas, with Don Law a few months later. The two sessions between them produced 29 songs, with alternative versions of nearly half of them, so the full legacy comprises a total of 42 recordings.
Some time after what were to prove to be the final sessions, the restless Johnson took to the road again, travelling to Chicago, St Louis, Detroit, Canada, New York and New Jersey, sometimes performing with a pianist and drummer during his travels. According to Johnny Shines, who travelled with him, ‘If you'd wake him up in the middle of the night and tell him there was a freight train coming through, he'd say, “Let's catch it,” and he'd take hold of his guitar and off he'd go.’
In July 1938, Johnson was back in Mississippi, playing at a juke joint in Greenwood at the intersection of Highways 82 and 49, known as Three Forks. One Saturday night he was sharing the bill there with Honeyboy Edwards and Sonny Boy Williamson when he was poisoned, probably with strychnine in an open bottle of whiskey sent over by the club's jealous owner, whose wife Johnson had been seeing. He might have survived the poisoning, but probably contracted pneumonia, which proved fatal. According to his death certificate, which was not eventually tracked down until thirty years later, Johnson died in Greenwood on 16 August 1938.
Unaware that he was dead, John Hammond tried to contact Johnson shortly after, to book him for his ‘From Spirituals To Swing’ concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. But Johnson could not be found, so Big Bill Broonzy took his place at the concerts held that December. For a long time mystery surrounded Johnson’s disappearance, but the details of his death eventually trickled out and research subsequently revealed that he had been buried in an unmarked grave, probably in the graveyard of the Little Zion Church near Greenwood, although gravestones have been placed by fans in three separate cemeteries outside the town.
It's fascinating to wonder what music Johnson might have made, had he lived on into the 1940s, moved to Chicago and gone electric, as did Muddy Waters and many others from the Delta tradition. On the other hand, it’s possible that his mysterious death in the long run only served to enhance his fame.
Following the release of the King Of The Delta Blues Singers LP in 1961, the Johnson cult went into overdrive. Researchers visited his old haunts in Mississippi to piece together his story, several books appeared, and his songs were recorded by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, among others.
Some critics have complained that Johnson was derivative and copied from the likes of Lonnie Johnson (no relation), Skip James and Son House. Such borrowing is part and parcel of the blues tradition, of course. The simple truth is that, whatever Johnson's various sources and influences, he sounded like no one but himself, a true original who has been much imitated, but never matched.